In our last post, Trauma Ties, we considered how trauma can condition our mind, heart, and body to react to stress in certain patterned ways — often keeping us stuck in an unfulfilling or destructive loop — preventing us from discovering who we really are, sharing real love, and living free. In this post, we’ll learn more about the different versions of who we seem to be, how to figure out who we really are, the impact of trauma-specific forms of survival mode on our lives, and one possible way to break free from the trauma ties.
Which Version Is The Real You???
Most of us don’t realize that we have different versions of ourselves that we may shift in and out of unknowingly, paralleling the amount of stress we’re under, or the level of awareness we’re consciously accessing at the time. Most shift between at least two of them — the survival mode and safe mode selves. For those who have learned to access spiritual mode at least some of the time, but may find themselves pulled out of it by material world circumstances; they may shift among all three of these versions (survival, safe, and spiritual modes). Understanding this could fill in a lot of blanks, solve a few mysteries, or become the missing pieces of the puzzle that you didn’t know existed. For a more comprehensive view, please check out Chapter 3 of “Consciousness Is Everything.” In this post, survival mode refers to Dr. Walter Cannon’s “stress response,” safe mode to Dr. Herbert Benson’s “relaxation response,” and spiritual mode to my “love response.”
How These Versions Work for Previously Traumatized People Who Are Still Bound By Their Trauma Ties
Whereas for most, these different versions represent varying levels of conscious awareness of thoughts, perceived possibilities, and courses of action in the moment, that naturally transition back and forth; for previously traumatized people, they often result in a disconnection, or dissociation, from the rest of who they are. Because of this tendency, previously traumatized people will often develop a lifestyle around the version of self they are most familiar with to avoid the added anxiety and confusion generated by such disconnections. And, despite its limitations and probable reinforcement of destructive patterns that will lead to trauma re-enactments survival mode is the version of self they will probably be living in (without realizing it). This is because the controllable, predictable, black-and-white familiarity of survival mode brings them a temporary sense of comfort, even if it is limiting or destructive; and because transitioning between different versions of self, or making major changes, creates more anxiety or confusion. Since previously traumatized people often live in a fairly constant state of anxiety or tension, they may try to avoid the added anxiety that second order change (change outside of the familiar structure/system) would generate — even if the change is highly desirable, and something they’ve wanted for as long as they can remember.
Enter Sophie and Leonardo
For example, if, on a peaceful, unassuming autumn afternoon, Sophie’s lifelong dream appears; in the form of Leonardo, her True Love; and if she decides to summon her courage, face her fears, and go for it; and if this requires her to leave everything familiar behind and start a new life somewhere else; then, despite their true-love-powered bliss and beatitudes, there may be some shocking surprises ahead for Sophie and Leonardo. When Sophie has an unexpected reunion with her lifelong acquaintance and unwelcome visitor Big Stress; while settling into a novel situation that has not yet acquired the sense of familiarity she needs to feel safe, comfortable, and under control; she might find herself suddenly losing sight of who Leonardo really is, what their relationship is really like, and what their dreamy life together has become. This is because, in this situation, Big Stress has triggered her back into survival mode, where thoughts, perceived possibilities, and courses of action are limited to fighting against or running away from a perceived threat. And, even though the stress is coming from a change-induced re-enactment that has nothing to do with Leonardo or their relationship, in this moment he is the only other person there. So, through a process of elimination, and because he is an adult male and so were the perpetrators of her past pain; he becomes the perceived threat that she must fight against or run away from. And since this is not just a simple survival mode response, but rather is being experienced at a level of severity equal to the actual trauma(s); it might be like “survival mode times 10.”
So she might find herself suddenly running away from Leonardo — bolting back into the familiarity of her past — even when it is undesirable or destructive. If she clears from the re-enactment, and sees what she has done; then she might want Leonardo to give her another chance. But might be too afraid to ask, believing that she did too much damage, or is “too fucked up.” And if she does ask him, or if he reaches out to her; then this re-enactment-based flight pattern could occur several more times before the novel situation became the familiar, comfortable new normal — particularly because of the amount of change and level of vulnerability being experienced, and how the added anxiety generated by this change and vulnerability could lead to trauma re-enactments). When this is understood, everything makes a lot more sense.
And if they tried again, and Sophie felt a sense of safety, trust, and freedom with Leonardo she had never felt before; then she might shift into safe mode, or even spiritual mode, depending on her level of awareness. And if she did, and was experiencing the joy and bliss of spirit; then, at the first sign of Big Stress, she might, again, freak out, shift into survival mode, lose sight of the truth of spiritual mode, and once again try to make Leonardo seem like a “bad guy” from her past. If she does, and if she tells others who are part of her survival mode comfort zone, the survival mode version of what happened, then she might be setting wheels in motion that are hard to turn around. Telling others would also make her more likely to continue believing it herself, strengthening the power of her past and those invisible trauma ties. And since her spiritual mode version (usually more sensitive, open, vulnerable, and connected) is relatively unfamiliar to her, and unknown to others; when she reflects upon her experiences with Leonardo leading up to the re-enactment, or describes it to others; then it might even seem, from the survival mode perspective, like he was trying to change or control her (because of how differently she was thinking, feeling, and acting with Leonardo in spiritual mode compared to the norm of her survival mode self); when, in truth, she may have been, for the first time in her life, feeling the joy, freedom, and complete safety of being who she really was (spiritual self), while connecting with her true love, after a life of searching. Everything was just so completely new and different! And when Big Stress triggers a re-enactment for a previously traumatized person, these differences may suddenly change from dream-come-true to nightmare.
Although she felt unconditionally loved, cared for, and safe in spiritual mode with Leonardo, when something unexpected occurred, or something randomly triggered her into survival mode; she lost sight of the bliss and beauty, fell out of the peace and safety, and instead of feeling loved was feeling threatened. And the disconnecting power of dissociation makes it much harder for previously traumatized people to comfortably shift back and forth between these versions of self, and it can also interfere with memory — making it easier for a previously traumatized person to believe whatever they are perceiving in the moment as real, and then remember it as what happened. And such dissociative memory disturbances, along with the intensity of survival mode emotions, can make it hard for a previously traumatized person to hold on to their awareness of the miraculous truth of their spiritual mode experiences; as they may seem distant, like a dream, or may fade in and out, seeming almost ghostlike. And since negative emotions are remembered three times as strongly as positive ones (because of their instinctual link to survival), the intense negative emotions of survival mode may seem much more convincing and real until after the smoke clears — if it ever does.
Living A Life Of Stress Behind The Scenes
Many previously traumatized people live their lives in variations on an anxiety theme, behind walls of avoidance and denial; hiding who they truly are, how they really feel, and what they really need; because the thought of being vulnerable to the truth seems unsafe to them. They may use alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications to avoid or deny what they don’t want to see. Some, especially if their trauma began in childhood, live their entire lives in varying levels of anxiety or tension, without even realizing it. This keeps them in survival mode nearly all the time, except during rare moments where they feel unusually safe, relaxed, or inspired. They get used to living in states of constant anxiety or tension, believe this is normal and what most people experience, and then may think the fleeting safe mode moments represent extreme happiness, instead of the absence of anxiety. So the survival mode self may be the one they gravitate toward in their day-to-day lives. It may, for them, seem like who they really are (their true self), when it is actually keeping them from finding it.
If they, when experiencing someone or something totally and categorically different (as with Leonardo), find themselves feeling completely safe, trusting, and free; everything could miraculously transform, at least for a while. Everything could be greatly enhanced — colors more vibrant, flavors enriched, touch more deliciously alive, etc.; along with the conscious awareness of joy, bliss, and peacefulness beyond anything ever before experienced, or even imagined. This, in my humble opinion, is spirit — our true self. And once people have tasted it, they usually want more.
One Way To Get More: Developing The Watcher, The Observing Self
When at least a portion of our conscious awareness is coming from our spiritual mode self, then this part of us, being outside of the mind, will be able to watch it; and what is happening there. We could refer to this watcher as our observing self. From this vantage point, we can see how people and environments are truly affecting us. Once we re-enter survival mode, however, we lose all conscious awareness of our observing self. When this occurs, our conscious perception is limited to only those things contained within survival mode (which, for previously traumatized people, come from their trauma-specific version of it.
So spiritual and safe modes can co-exist (share conscious awareness), but survival mode exists in a world of its own. From survival mode, neither safe nor spiritual modes are accessible (although people in survival mode often believe, based on learning the language or going through the motions, that they are in a truly spiritual place).
Discovering Who We Are: Can This Happen From Survival Mode?
As with their pursuit of comfort through the familiar, previously traumatized people often try to find themselves within survival mode. If their search somehow led them out of survival mode, then it could be useful; but it would be more likely to result in them believing that their identity is equal to a variation on their survival mode self (without them realizing it). Even if they expanded the scope of their activities and roles within the familiarity of their comfort zone (e.g. a new job, going to counseling, attending church); if they do it from within survival mode, continuing to live within the comfort of the familiar, while avoiding or denying their broader truth; then they will likely be strengthening their trauma ties — reinforcing the conditioned beliefs, trauma triggers, and fears that make them want to keep living in the familiar, and that cause them to trigger into a trauma re-enactment when they leave it. In my humble opinion, we can only truly find ourselves in spirit, and if we challenge ourselves to face our fears and live there, then we will find a place of safety, joy, and freedom unlike anything imagined; and realize that the conditioned fears that haunted us were only memories from our past.
If who we are in spirit is who we really are, then wouldn’t anything else be an illusion that is interfering with our true self realization? As someone who has survived a number of serious traumas myself; speaking both based on my own personal experience, as well as the accounts of hundreds I’ve had the privilege of supporting through their healing process; I can confidently say, within a high degree of clinical certainty, that serious trauma can either paralyze us, or synergistically catalyze our growth into the higher consciousness of spirit (or both, at different points in time). It is more than worth it — to face our fears to live in the joy of spirit — and then to find true love to share in spirit with.
The Role of Fear In Sustaining Trauma Ties
Since, when triggered, trauma re-enactments create the illusion that the traumatic event is happening again, the fears from the past seem real in the present. These fears play a major role in strengthening the trauma ties. Because of the specific traumatic events previously traumatized people have experienced, when they are triggered into survival mode, it becomes a specific, patterned version of the fight or flight mentality, rather than a general stress response. So it is a reliving of the trauma, with survival mode prompting the previously traumatized person to either fight against or run away from the specific types of threats that existed within the original trauma (rather than a general sense of needing to fight against or run away from a non-specific threat) — again, “survival mode times ten.”
By seeking “comfort” through the familiar, or running back to it following a re-enactment, previously traumatized people may believe they are successfully escaping the discomfort of major change; when, to the contrary, they may be setting themselves up for even bigger, less desirable, and more disruptive changes, while missing out on the realization of their dreams. In “Facing Fears of Change,” wolf medicine reminds us that, “Another truth to remember is that we do not know what changes will occur if we choose to remain in our current situation rather than accepting the prompts of the Great Spirit. If we don’t want to deal with major change, so choose to remain in our current situation, then we may end up facing bigger and more disruptive changes than if we had flowed with the naturalness of the universal wisdom. And Wolf believes that our choice to ignore the prompting of the Great Spirit may be the cause of the unexpected changes in the life that we were trying to control. This could be a lesson in acceptance of the limitations of our control, and awareness of the importance of recognizing and accepting spiritual things.” Change is inevitable — we cannot avoid or escape it — so why not accept the changes orchestrated by spirit, or those choreographed by the Universe Herself; if offered them, rather than resisting them, and replacing them with historical fears or avoidance of discomfort?
Survival Mode And Major Life Decisions
No matter how urgent or important it might seem to us in the moment, we should never make major life decisions while under the influence of survival mode. If there is a legitimate threat to life, which there usually isn’t, then we should take the needed action to protect ourselves; and after things return to a more relaxed state, then this is the time to evaluate what happened, and consider making changes. If previously traumatized people make major life decisions while in survival mode, then they are likely letting their fears, trauma triggers, and people from their past make their present and future decisions for them. This would strengthen their trauma ties, rather than breaking them; and keep them stuck within a loop of fear and sadness.
Internal And External Challenges to Leaving Survival Mode And Breaking Free From Trauma Ties
The most important thing to understand about previously traumatized people, or anyone else for that matter, is that we are all so uniquely different that each individual must be considered completely separately from every other. That being said, there are some general challenges that fit most such circumstances pretty well. It might be helpful to break them down into internal (e.g. trauma triggers, conditioned beliefs, fears, ego issues, ego defenses) and external (e.g. people, environments, specific sensory stimuli, change, the unknown).
For previously traumatized people, internal challenges may arise out of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions deriving from trauma triggers, conditioned beliefs, fears, ego issues, and ego defenses. Such things can lead to re-enactments, and may be difficult for the previously traumatized person to see. They create the trauma-specific version of survival mode that has, for many, become a way of life. And its influence is much broader than we might imagine, reaching much further than just the trigger events. It influences every thought, every feeling, every belief, and every action by limiting our perception, like a filter, to only those things that represent threats to our comfort and safety (whether subtle or cataclysmic). And these filtered perceptions apply to us, to others, and to the world. If Sophie’s trauma-specific version of survival mode included fears of not being good enough/being criticized, being controlled, being manipulated, being unfairly treated, and being abandoned; then her survival mode thoughts or feelings related to these issues could prompt her to run away from (avoid, deny, change the subject, leave the room, or even end the relationship) or fight against (interrupt, argue, raise voice to dominate, stand over and yell to control situation, or even physically shove); Leonardo in response to healthy, normal day-to-day occurrences.
For example, if Leonardo offered to help her clean up after dinner, Sophie might say something like “No thanks, I got this,” but be thinking “He doesn’t think I clean the kitchen well enough. I can’t do anything right! All he ever does is criticize me!” — and then shut down and give him the silent treatment. If in spiritual mode, in response to the same question, she might say “Mmm, that sounds like sweet fun! Let’s have a cleaning party!” and be thinking “What a sweet guy! I’m so in love with him!” — and turn their cleaning party into romantic play. Or, if they’re considering hotels for a weekend get-away, Leonardo might acknowledge Sophie’s suggestions and then add some of his own, and she might respond by saying something like “Oh yeah, those are nice too,” while thinking “he’s always trying to outdo me, or make me look stupid! And even though I am, he doesn’t have to point it out all the time! And look, now he’s trying to control what we do again!” When in spiritual mode she might say something like “Wow! What an amazing team we are! We’ve got some incredible options, and all I really want is to be with you anyway!” while thinking “Everything is so mutual with us! I’m so lucky to be with someone like him! I love him so much!” And this is no exaggeration. This is how significantly perceptions can vary from one version of self to another — especially when being influenced by a trauma-specific form of survival mode.
And similarly, for previously traumatized people, external challenges could arise out of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or actions influenced by people, environments, specific sensory stimuli, change, or the unknown. When people or environments represent comfort through the familiar — even if they were themselves present during or perpetrators of all or part of the original traumas — they may possess degrees of power and control over the previously traumatized person that can only be explained by the comfort-through-familiarity principle combined with their trauma-specific version of survival mode. People who are part of these familiar environments, for the previously traumatized person, are usually considered either generally safe and good or generally unsafe and bad; although their position can fluctuate based on how nice or safe they seem in a given moment. They are typically fulfilling roles for the previously traumatized person, like bully, controller, manipulator, rescuer, savior, see-er/knower, etc.; often with a microcosmic fantasy conviction similar to the fairy tale importance assigned to people within the circumscribed bubbles of high school (e.g. the popular, cool, nerd, loser, stoner, jock, etc.). And although this microcosmic fantasy usually ends up fading faster than a mountain sunset after high school, when people enter the “real world;” it’s microcosmic magic may remain in place indefinitely for the previously traumatized person, along with the fictional roles accompanying its fairy tale conclusions. This is because they feel safer, more comfortable, and more in control; while in survival mode; when with familiar people or in familiar environments while avoiding truth and believing in such illusion (even if they’ve wanted more for as long as they can remember). Change creates anxiety, and the unknown generates fear of losing control. When they take the risk, they need to stick it out until the new becomes the familiar.
Further, people, environments, and specific sensory stimuli can, through conditioning, trigger previously traumatized people back into survival mode, if they had managed to transition out of it. Seeing a certain face, the inside of a particular house, a familiar nature scene; hearing a particular voice, a familiar song, or a sudden loud noise; smelling a certain perfume, a distinct spice, or a familiar body odor; touching a certain fabric, a specific piece of jewelry, or a particular body part; tasting a particular food, a certain kind of tequila, or a type of air; could trigger a previously traumatized person back into survival mode, if they were no longer in it. These are just a few examples of the countless numbers of things that could trigger previously traumatized people back into survival mode, or keep them there (without them realizing it). And if they move back into the same environment, with the same people, in the same house; then what other influences would there be? When breaking away from the people, environments, and sensory stimuli that reinforce their trauma-specific version of survival mode, it could prove useful to journal about the survival mode triggers, their magnitude of influence, and the establishment of priorities and boundaries that support the evolving new normal.
Breaking Trauma Ties Naturally: Living In Spirit
Although previously traumatized people will probably always have some sensitivities, and some may need a reality testing partner to help them see the truth of spirit and find their way back from a dissociative state at times; most can not only heal from their trauma, but can find through it a link to higher consciousness. And their sensitivities can become the source of amazing strengths, while their collaboration with a trusted other can develop into a transformational healing process, and contribute to the healing of countless others.
So what exactly does it mean to live in spirit, and how do we get there? Although this is a very personal thing, and may cross philosophical, religious, and cultural demarcations; I believe there are some common features that will make sense from most spiritual genres.
And, since both the survival mode and safe mode selves derive from the human mind, and the spiritual mode from the conscious universe; as we take a look at some of the ways to tell them apart; let’s focus primarily on distinguishing the mind from the spirit. And, of course, this would depend upon how we define “mind” and “spirit.” My understandings are more in line with Eckhart Tolle and Quantum Buddhism. But however we define these terms, let’s please rise above these words and connect with spirit.
Distinguishing Between Mind And Spirit
- The mind is part of our human being and the spirit is part of the conscious universe.
- The mind generates thought from within itself and the spirit receives awareness from another source.
- The mind is the voice in our head while the spirit is the observer of this voice.
- The mind seeks to limit while the spirit sees the limitless.
- The mind seeks the illusion of control while the spirit sees the illusion.
- The mind seeks to organize while the spirit seeks to free.
- The mind seeks comfort through illusion while the spirit seeks awareness through truth.
- The mind generates polarized thoughts/emotions such as happy/sad, mad/glad, while the spirit receives unpolarized awarenesses of pure joy and pure love (without a flip-side).
- The mind is like a computer and the spirit is like a light.
*Although grossly over-simplified, and difficult to translate into words; let’s use these distinguishing characteristics as we take a closer look at how to live within our spiritual mode self, and by doing so break free from those invisible trauma ties.
Untie Yourself With Light
1. Develop your observing self. Ask yourself the question, “What am I going to think next?” Then watch for your next thought. The watcher is your spirit, and the watched is your mind. Make it like a breathing meditation, so when you’re distracted by your thoughts and find yourself back down in them again, you return to being the outside observer of your thoughts — your observing self, your spirit. Make this a daily practice, and work to increase the proportion of your conscious awareness that is occupied by your observing self until it fills nearly all of it. Think of it as an out-of-body experience. If, while you’re watching, no thoughts appear for a while, then just keep watching. Also, the ego will try to trick you into believing that you are outside of yourself observing when you’re still inside your mind thinking. If you are thinking, as the voice in your head, then you are not outside of yourself watching yourself think. If you are thinking about yourself thinking, then you are not outside of yourself watching yourself think. The watcher is not thinking, only watching the mind think. Make this a regular daily practice until it becomes an ongoing, continuous process.
2. If you’ve used alcohol, weed, psychiatric medications, or other artificial substances to avoid or deny what is happening in your life, or to make you more comfortable in a situation that would naturally create discomfort; then consider stopping all of them. If you’re taking prescription medications, then work with your prescribing physician to do this safely and responsibly. These mind-altering substances make it harder to access spirit, and harder to know when you’ve found it. They can also make you more comfortable living in a constant state of anxiety, and less motivated to leave it.
3. Think of the mind as a computer, intended to help you process information and communicate, and remember to turn it off when your work is done. The consciousness beyond the mind is spirit. This is who we really are, and this is what we want our conscious awareness to be comprised of.
4. Experiment with meditation, prayer, yoga, and/or regular exercise to start and end each day (and create a perspective of gratitude and mindfulness throughout the day).
5. Don’t let your internal or external challenges deter you from your healing process. Make the light of Universal truth, and those things representing it, your highest priority.
6. If the Universe, or your god, is offering you a divine gift, and continuously prompting you in a particular direction; accept it fully and plunge completely into it; trusting in it, and having faith in its divine purpose. If it generates fears, when Big Stress comes knocking, then objectively assess the risk factors. Is there really anything there to be afraid of, or are these fears just coming from things that happened to me in the past that are over now? Challenge yourself, fight through the fear, and see what happens! Fear doesn’t exist in spirit, so if Big Stress sends you reeling, just move back into the safety of your spirit as soon as you can.
7. Don’t rely on people or situations from the past to help you leave it. They are part of it, will keep you tethered to it, and will want to keep you where you have always been in their lives (see section on family differentiation and homeostasis in “Keep It To Yourself: The Importance Of Privacy In Relationships.” )
8. If you can clearly determine that a new person or novel situation in your life is objectively safe and desirable, then, no matter what your past fears or ego are telling you; feel the fear and do it anyway It’s better to experience the temporary, change-related fears associated with dream realization, wish fulfillment, and goal attainment; than to live a lifetime of familiarity-based anxiety, wasted time, and broken dreams.
Photo Credit: Kalvicio de las Nieves